© Photo : Guy Vivien
There was a time – and not all that long ago – when composers fell into highly categorised frameworks: career, predilections, and aesthetic choices met clearly identifiable norms as if the trajectories were marked out in advance. But changes in our society and successive stylistic questions have modified the order, resulting in a situation that is doubtless uncomfortable for timorous followers but highly stimulating for intrepid minds of which Oscar Strasnoy is an unusual representative, sometimes disconcerting and, in the final analysis, quite fascinating.
Let us listen to him decipher the path: ’I was born into a family of agnostic Jews fleeing European barbarity and misery. They were seeking salvation in a rich, modern country like the Argentina of the first half of the 20th century. At the end of my adolescence, I had to make the decision to abandon Argentinian provincialism for the modernity and richness of Europe’.
Let us clarify: Oscar Strasnoy was born in Buenos Aires on 12th November 1970; his Russian lineage proclaimed; an acknowledged musical heritage (his ’biological’ father a violist, an uncle and an aunt who were composers); and gratitude towards the adoptive country going through a period in which cultural life was particularly intense (but this was before the dictatorship). There, they frequented the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz, this friend of the family whom Strasnoy was unable to know but whose texts he would twice set to music: Opérette in 2002, Geschichte the following year. And there were also some powerful musical personalities present: Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, for example, and Mauricio Kagel whose personal, familial, and artistic career is, in many respects, closely akin to Oscar’s (who would note: ’Kagel is the Gombrowicz of music’). Shared irony...
Marked by his Argentinian childhood (first piano, composition and conducting studies at the Buenos Aires Conservatory), Oscar Strasnoy, who would soon refuse to write tangos as he would refuse to enter the ’standard European’ music mould, would explain that his situation was ’a bit complicated…’ And so it was the choice of Europe: the first movement carried him to Vienna where he hoped to work with composer-conductor Michel Gielen, but it was Hans Zender, whom he would meet up with again a few years later at the Musikhochschule in Frankfurt, in particular to give himself over to the analysis of Pierre Boulez’s Pli selon pli. In the meantime, he settled in Paris and was accepted at the Conservatoire where he was going to benefit from the wise advice of Guy Reibel, a tenured professor of electro-acoustic composition and musical research, Michaël Lévinas and Gérard Grisey, whose memory still remains so vivid amongst his former students. ’Grisey quite liked my music,’ Strasnoy would say, ’but he liked it because I was not trying to write his music.’
He then pricked up his ears and made his choices: Edgar Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen (the Stockhausen of Kontakte, Klavierstück X, and Stimmung), György Ligeti, and Luciano Berio; among his favourites, he also mentions György Kurtág and Salvatore Sciarrino. These were references, but Strasnoy wanted to map out his own path. ’I have no intention of belonging to a club’… Dogmatism does not enter his sphere of activity. ’The idea of school always revolted me. The artist is and must be an individual. The history of art is made up of exceptions, not rules.’ One can well imagine that he had little indulgence for the Schoenberg inventor of a new language: ’Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic music is
infinitely more antiquated than his free atonal music.’ Nor would he tolerate the rules of IRCAM: ’I fled after a fortnight. Music for standardising composers horrified me.’
He would thus make his own choices – and refine them in the course of different ’residencies’: at the Villa Médicis Outside the Walls in 1999, the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart (2001-02), the Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto in 2003, and New York in 2007, thanks to a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. As for conducting, he practised it from time to time, having been conductor of the Orchestre du CROUS de Paris from 1996 to 1998, and having also conducted the Orchestre National d’Ile-de-France, Ensemble 2e2m, and the Nice Philharmonic Orchestra. And even though, as a pianist, he founded the Quintet Ego Armand, the piano is no longer topical. He now concentrates all his energy on composition – composition and thinking about How and Why…
At the centre of this activity is opera but, dare we say, an unconventional opera in the text-action-music relationship. Reduced forces, exploded text, unexpected progressions.
His catalogue already boasts eight titles: Midea, a chamber opera premiered at Spoleto in 2000, revived in Rome, and crowned by the Orpheus Prize, thanks to Berio’s judgement; then L’instant (ex-Ephemera), begun in 2000 and premiered in Créteil (France) in 2008. Next, were the two aforementioned Gombrowicz works, Opérette and Geschichte, which were followed by a pocket opera for countertenor and viola d’amore on a text by Alejandro Tantanian, premiered in Buenos Aires. In 2010 came Le Bal, commissioned by the Hamburg Opera; Un retour, a chamber opera premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival; and finally, Cachafaz, Copi’s barbaric tragedy, premiered at the Théâtre de Cornouaille in Quimper, directed by the iconoclast Benjamin Lazar, and revived at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Belonging to the same family, since it was also staged, is the Préparatifs de Noce (avec B et K) – original title: Hochzeitsvorbereitungen (mit B und K) –, a surprising (and convincing) approach in which the text of Kafka’s novella is confronted with Bach’s ’Wedding’ Cantata. Beyond a construction, reflection: ’If one can exhume an urn and, by studying it, reconstruct a civilisation, even more can one describe the evolution of the world by unearthing the rituals of marriage’. This Bach-Kafka dialogue is quite revealing about the work carried out by Oscar Strasnoy: a construction – and, more precisely, the composer speaks of ’scenario’ and montage. An approach illustrated by the series of ’Bloc-notes’, concertante pieces that extend other scores in the form of sketches or derivatives. Even more is the series, four independent pieces for orchestra: Incipit [Sum 1], Y [Sum 2], Scherzo [Sum 3], and The End [Sum 4]. And here, the montage is especially refined since, for each score, it consists of evoking, in a more or less identifiable way, references such as the final chords of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony in The End, interwoven references and homages – and it is thus that Strasnoy, in Sum 2, pays tribute to the slow movement, quoting Warum?, the third piece from Schumann’s Phantasiestücke, Op. 12.
As concerns form, it is not a matter of a musical mosaic but of musical urban planning, as the composer emphasises in his dialogue with Dorota Zorawska (Les stratifications de la mémoire, Editions A la ligne): ’I prefer the idea of thinking out a work as one would think out a city. The city-work proposes a work made up of several works (a hyper-work), a constellation having as a centre an original piece round which one or several works or pieces of pre-existing works turn, forming a subject from several perspectives.’ Question regarding the Bach-Kafka conjunction: ’How can one bring together two works written 250 years apart?’ – ’In the same way a modern building in a contemporary city can adjoin a construction from the 18th century.’
Finally, these proximities, these allusions and references, bring into play an essential dimension for Oscar Strasnoy: memory, this memory that is awakened by music, stimulating the imagination and nurturing creation. ’…memory is the only thing that belongs individually and exclusively to the unique beings that we are.’ And also, a fine phrase: ’Memory is the musician’s sight’…
The elaboration of an oeuvre is underway, already hailed by distinctions – Prize of the Académie du Disque Lyrique for the recording of Hochzeitsvorbereitungen (mit B und K), SACEM Grand Prize in 2010 –, and prestigious invitations: Centre Acanthes in Metz (July 2011), guest composer at the Festival Présences in Paris (2012)... Finally, as a matter of interest, let us point out that Strasnoy, broad in his horizons (but with no particular taste for improvisation or ’open’ works), is interested in cabaret songs and has provided proof of this by collaborating with Ingrid Caven.
Oscar Strasnoy’s works
Consult Oscar Strasnoy web site[ oscarstrasnoy.info ]
Composer catalogue of Oscar Strasnoy[ pdf - 206 Kb ]
INCIPIT (SUM N°1), for symphonic orchestra
Y (SUM N°2)*, for symphonic orchestra
TROIS CAPRICES DE PAGANINI, for violin and orchestra
Violin: Latica Honda-Rosenberg
Philharmonic Orchestra of Radio France
Conductors: Dima Slobodeniouk and Susanna Mälkki*
”Oscar Strasnoy, Orchestral Works” / Aeon 1331
UN RETOUR, for 7 voices and 6 instruments
Chamber opera in one act in French, Spanish and Latin, based on the novel by Alberto Manguel, ”El Regreso” published by Actes Sud.
Musicatreize, Face à face Quartet
Conductor: Roland Hayrabedian
Staging: Thieû Thierry Niang
Musicatreize / Actes Sud
LA STRATIFICATION DE LA MEMOIRE
Collection À la ligne, published by Ensemble 2e2m (2009)
22, 24, 25 et 26 juin 2015: Y (SUM N°2)
Pour orchestre symphonique
Musikkollegium Winterthur - dir. : Ruben Dubrovsky
Winterthur, Burghof, Darmstadt et Fellbach, Suisse